Reflecting diversity of St. Paul, sidewalk poetry winners include new languages

An excerpt from "Bad Day," one of St. Paul's sidewalk poems that has been in circulation since the project launched a decade ago. This year's poetry winners include submissions in Spanish, Hmong and Dakota languages.
Euan Kerr | MPR News File

For more than a decade, St. Paul public works crews have stamped poems into hundreds of new sidewalk panels.

Those poems all have been in English — until now.

This spring, Public Art St. Paul opened its sidewalk poetry competition to works in Dakota, Hmong, Somali and Spanish — and some of those poems were among the winners.

Judge Saymoukda Daungphouxay Vongsay said the rule change made this year’s competition more fun and lively.

“We had more judges and invited more poets. We wanted different voices and experiences in the room,” said Vongsay.

The competition attracted more than 600 entries. Judges selected nine winners to stamp into new sidewalk panels around the city; the winning poems included two in Hmong, one in Spanish, and one containing Dakota words. The rest were in English.

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Judges proficient in the non-English languages interpreted and translated the poems for the other panelists. Poets also were required to submit an English version of their work.

Vongsay said that while the competition drew Dakota, Hmong and Spanish entries, there were no entries in Somali. Somalia has a rich tradition of poetry, but Vongsay said traditional Somali poems are much longer than the contest’s 300-character limit.

One of this year’s winners, Roberto Sande Carmona, wrote his poem in Spanish. He said he thinks it’s important to open up the competition to languages other than English.

“All of these things are normally — you don’t even realize — only presented in English, and so I think it’s important to see that any context can be open to anybody in any language,” said Carmona.

The title of his poem, “Lemniscate,” refers to the symbol for infinity.

Roberto Sande Carmona reads "Lemniscate" in Spanish
by MPR

¿te acuerdas cuando te empuje

en ese carrito de compras en el parque?

tus dientes deslumbrantes, risas melifluas,

ojos iridiscentes.

El Tiempo se volvió singular.

simultáneamente empezó, acabó, nunca paso,

y sigue pasando.

parte de mi sigue ahí, empujando ese carrito,


Roberto Sande Carmona reads "Lemniscate" in English
by MPR


Do you remember when I pushed you through the park in that shopping cart?

Your dazzling teeth, mellifluous laughs, iridescent eyes.

Time became singular. It simultaneously began, finished, never happened, and is still happening.

Part of me remains there, pushing that cart,


Carmona said his poem is inspired by the little, insignificant moments in life that stay with us and become cemented in our memory.

“I was trying to kind of just speak to that idea of how something ephemeral can simultaneously feel like infinity,” said Carmona. “It can feel like it doesn’t really ascribe to time or follow the rules of time.”

Vongsay said the judges looked for poems that felt personal. She said they wanted to find poems that would make people think and inspire readers to write their own stories.

Public Art Saint Paul collaborates with the City of St. Paul for the contest. The City’s Public Works Department determines where the poems will be “published.” It creates the huge reusable stamps sent out with maintenance crews. The city repairs 10 miles of sidewalks each year, and panels that need to be fixed are often emblazoned with a winning poem.

“It’s just a different way for people to access poetry because poetry sometimes doesn’t feel super accessible to everyone, but to see this poem chilling out on the sidewalk is kind of whimsical,” said Vongsay.

The city will begin stamping the new crop of poems in concrete in mid-August. They will remain in the city’s collection to be stamped in future years, too.

You can find a map of the poetry locations at